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Why Americans Have a Distorted View of Exercise – And How We Can Change It

photo: US Army on flickr

photo: US Army on flickr

Do you work out?

If so, how often?

Once a day? Once a week? Once a year?

A while back, I read a book that permanently altered how I see the role of exercise in my life.

The book is called The Blue Zones and it chronicles the lives of people in five areas of the world – Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece.

The population in the five Blue Zones is significant because the people there routinely live into their nineties and beyond.

The book looks at the factors that contribute to longevity, one of which is exercise. (The others include eating moderately, avoiding meat and processed foods, having a sense of purpose, taking down time, and participating in a spiritual community.)

The people in the Blue Zones don’t approach exercise like Americans do, though.

(The American Blue Zone, Loma Linda California, has a high population of Seventh Day Adventists, a group whose healthy values run contrary to the rest of our nation.)

Most Americans will park their car as close as possible to the gym, and then go work out for an hour. Then they’ll go home and sit on the couch for a few more hours. This is after sitting in an office all day.

photo: Alex on flickr

photo: Alex on flickr

I have a friend from Europe who marvels at how Americans refuse to walk anywhere. We spiritual types even brag about how we got the perfect parking spot.

Perfect being defined as a spot that enables us to walk five steps to wherever we want to go.

People in the Blue Zones don’t approach exercise this way. Most of them don’t even “work out.” They simply have lives that keep them active. They garden. They do chores. They walk to the store. Regular, low-intensity activity is just a part of their lives.

They’re exercising without trying to exercise. They’re living their lives and staying healthy while doing so.

photo: Wagner T. Cassimiro on flickr

photo: Wagner T. Cassimiro on flickr

I was recently reminded of the Blue Zones when Melissa and I were unloading our gear for a Sunday morning gig.

Most of our Sunday morning gigs don’t involve unloading gear. We show up at a Center and there’s a piano and mics and a sound team to help us play our music.

But in this case we had a friend who was starting a new center. Since the center was new, they didn’t yet have all the groovy stuff like sound equipment and mics. So we brought it with us when we did music there.

The other morning, we were doing exactly that. It was 8:30 a.m. and we were loading our gear into the Center. When I say “gear,” I mean speakers, speaker stands, mics, mic stands, a keyboard, a keyboard stand, a keyboard bench, music stands and a P.A.

We bring all this stuff with us because we love our friend and we’re supporting her new Center. We love playing there and we love participating in this new community.

photo: Elizabeth Rowley

photo: Elizabeth Rowley

That said, the other morning I was feeling sorry for myself. Why did I have to lug all this stuff? Poor, poor me. I was longing for the day when I didn’t have to schlep any gear anywhere. I wanted to “move beyond it.”

And then I remembered the people in the Blue Zones.

Here in America, we see any type of manual labor as “less than.” With a few exceptions, like elite athletes, people who work primarily with their hands and bodies are valued far less than people who work primarily with their minds.

But why? As the people in the Blue Zones have shown us, keeping active and using your body throughout the day is great for you.

Here I was, at 8:30 in the morning, in beautiful Northern California. I was using my body to carry in gear that would broadcast the music my wife and I were about to perform. Music that we were performing as an act of love for our friend. What was wrong with this picture?

Nothing. Only my attitude.

photo: Rob Boudon on flickr

photo: Rob Boudon on flickr

The minute I realized the error of my thinking, I shifted into gratitude. I was lucky to get to use my body in such a way. Not only was I participating in low-intensive activity, I was acting from a sense of purpose and contributing to a spiritual community.

A Blue Zones trifecta!

Yes, I still work out several days a week. But I do it because I love it. And I’m more aware of staying active throughout my entire day, not just the hour I’m working out.

Not that I always remember to be grateful when I’m doing yard work or cleaning toilets.

But knowing about the lives of the people in the Blue Zones has permanently altered my view of exercise and manual labor.

Indeed, I’m trying to come up with activities that will maximize my use of Blue Zone practices. Like taking a day-long hike with my spiritual community, followed by a leisurely dinner of non-processed, non-meat food items, all the while participating in deep yet playful discussions about the meaning of life.

Blue Zone nirvana, here I come!

photo: Delany Dean on flickr

photo: Delany Dean on flickr

What is your relationship to exercise and manual labor? Share your comments below!

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22 Responses to Why Americans Have a Distorted View of Exercise – And How We Can Change It

  1. squirrel May 6, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    God morning, Z,

    I’ve schlepped Melissa’s equipment, and it’s no small feat. You go, girl. I used to loathe manual labor until I realized that when I do it, I’m killing two rocks with one bird – getting stuff done while simultaneously working out – a combination I have decided is pretty awesome.

    People who make a living doing manual labor just rock. As you said, much of society looks down on manual laborers – especially immigrant farm and vineyard workers – but I never did. I think it’s partially because I tend to root for the underdog; but also, do I want to be out in the blazing, hot sun picking grapes and spraying poison? HELL NO! Mad props to everyone out there doing that work; I won’t do it.

    I still love manual labor, but these days pain keeps me from doing a lot of things I love. Admittedly, I have been really pushing myself lately (although, probably more than I should) to walk farther, use stairs instead of elevators, and rearrange furniture and such. Pain is part of my journey, but I’m not letting it control my life anymore.

    Good day to you!

    • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:14 am #

      Good morning, Squirrel!

      Thank you for understanding my plight with Meli’s equipment. No small feat indeed. (Good thing I don’t have small feet. Ar ar.)

      Your comment about manual labor reminds me that some of the folks who are working as manual laborers are underpaid and overworked. So that’s a whole other issue. I wouldn’t want to be in that situation either.

      I’m glad that you are not letting pain control your life anymore. Rock on, sister!


  2. Jill May 6, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    Hi Z, thanks for this. You’re right, Americans are very weird and idiosyncratic when it comes to exercise. And I’m no exception. I take my daily walk, which I love and am proud of, and I always love the opportunity to walk stairs, especially when I’m cold. But I get persnickety when unplanned exercise is foisted upon me. It’s like, “What? I’m not wearing the proper shoes to walk to your car with you, and you want me to help you carry what?) The nerve of some people!

    But I do seem to remember other lifetimes when I just moved around all day long, lifting things and walking to my destination, and I was naturally tanned and toned, and food was just food, and not love… :)

    • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:17 am #

      Hi Jill,

      The nerve of some people, indeed! I see that you understand the true weirdness of the situation.

      Your view into your previous lifetimes sounds heavenly to me. The closest I came to that lifestyle in this lifetime was when I was working on at farm in my 20’s. In fact, that work outdoors growing vegetables helped me heal around food issues as well. But that’s another blog post. . . .


  3. Naava May 6, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    Love this Z! And I remember to be in gratitude that I have a fully-abled body that can do this sort of thing. Not everyone has full use of arms, back, and legs. I LOVE being able to move. My favorite doesn’t-feel-like-exercise is dancing in my living room! The Joy of having a fully functioning physical form that allows me to enter the Divine through music!!!

    • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:19 am #

      Hi Naava,

      Thank you for pointing out the element of appreciation for what our bodies can do, and the awareness that not everyone has full use of their bodies. Moving into appreciation, for me, brings more and more gratitude about being able to move – whatever it is that I’m doing. And I agree with you that dancing is awesome. What a wonderful way to experience the Divine in physical form!


  4. tanya May 6, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    I have a pretty healthy attitude to exercise and healthy lifestyle. The hump I am currently up against is how to have an active healthy spiritual life, as I am not religious or even very spiritual. This is taking up a lot of my mind space. Any insight would be appreciated :-)

    • Steve May 6, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

      Hey Z, right on point. In February I took advantage of a free “Heart Health” screening put on by a local major hospital. It was a day of reckoning for me. I’d been living on the road and with people who were sloppy about food choices and lazy in exercise and my weight had climbed to it’s highest point ever. This screening event coincided with my need to move from that house where I was participating in the worst choices to another house in which food choice were made very consciously. I also had no car so I had to walk every where and now have a bike (the winter weather finally over and spring weather permitting) and I now ride all over the city everyday. Additionally a custodians job came available at a spiritual center and I grabbed it…lots of physical labor. Results? My body has naturally shed 14 pounds in six weeks, energy level strong and growing and self respect returning. Funny, now people offer me rides places and I’m quick to say, No Thanks..I got my bike and every mile I peddle is shedding more weight and balancing my numbers.

      • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:34 am #

        Hi Steve,

        Great story. I’m glad that you are back on your way to a healthy body/mind/spirit. It’s amazing how cleaning up the body temple can make such a huge difference in every aspect of our lives, isn’t it? Kudos to you for listening and taking action! :)


    • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:28 am #

      Hey Tanya,

      This is a great question. The first thing I have to say is that there are as many spiritual paths as there are people. Everyone has their own connection with that Thing. (I don’t like the word God very much.)

      I would also say that you’ve already started to have a spiritual life – just by opening up to that question. Having it take up your mind space is a good thing. Having it take up heart space wouldn’t be a bad thing either. 😉

      I would just continue to be open to the question. We Americans want answers and definition. The spiritual path is sometimes about “I don’t know,” and waiting in the question. Also, you can ask for Help. From the Life Force, or whatever fits for you. Or if you still don’t know what It is, or what It feels/looks like, you can just ask the Great Unknown for help in finding your way to having spiritual life.

      That’s what I have to say for now. Feel free to check in again if this is less than satisfying. 😉


  5. Elizabeth Rowley May 6, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    I LOVE exercise. It’s like my spiritual practice. When I do not do it, I feel lousy, on edge and disconnected. Thank you for this awesome blog Z! I adore you, Z & Melissa! More than you know!

    • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:30 am #

      Hi Elizabeth!!

      Yay! So fun to see you here. I was a little embarrassed to tell on myself and my disgruntled attitude while unloading our stuff at CSLSB. But I knew you’d understand. Plus, I had a revelation and got a blog post out of it! Win/win!! :)

      Love you back!!


  6. David May 6, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    I figure I can spend $1000 on a snow blower and $1000 on a gym membership. Or do neither and shovel my own driveway.

    Rather a lot of mundane tasks become more tolerable if I feel I am “double dipping” or “multi-tasking”:

    Going up and down the stairs as I gather and distribute laundry? That’s also stair-climber use (for free and without driving to the gym).

    Peddling my exercise bike in the garage? I’m also checking emails at the same time. A friend uses his “iPlod” – a tablet while on a treadmill.

    Catching up with family and friends on the phone? Typically done while walking on the beach with the dog.

    But, more simply and in the spirit of the article – a distance parking spot or shopping in a huge store is always a chance to get a little exercise.

    • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:32 am #

      Hi David,

      Yes! There are so many different ways to implement this idea into our lives. And be WAY healthier in the meantime. Thanks for all these different suggestions. I especially like the walking on the beach with the dog idea. Sounds blissful.

      Thanks for stopping by the comment section. Come back again any time! :)


  7. Kat May 6, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    Hi Z!

    And here I was this morning lamenting about having to carry a basket full of laundry further than I really wanted to.

    Of course, that was before I read your blog. Then I just laughed at how crazy I sounded, and realized how fortunate I am to have a body that allows me to move about with relative ease.

    I will look upon exercise differently in the future, and be sure that when I have the opportunity to do something extra, even carrying baskets full of laundry, I will think of The Blue Zone people, and do it with a smile on my face!

    Bountiful Blessings,

    • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:37 am #

      Hi Kat,

      See, I read your mind. I’m here to help! :)

      I, too, am thankful to the people in the Blue Zones for showing the way, and turning our American ideas of “success” and “prosperity” on their, um, derriere(s). Much better to be active and healthy! Have fun with the laundry!


  8. Karen May 6, 2014 at 8:06 pm #

    What a nice reminder to appreciate opportunities to move around and “work out” in our daily routine, not confining it solely to the gym.

    I don’t always jump for joy over housework and yard work, but I do believe my daily regimen keeps me stronger than I would be if someone did those things for me.

    My feller and his friend were leading intense work-outs last summer, but by evening, they were too pooped to pop and sore besides. I took pride in getting heavy things out to the trash by the street by myself, as my consistent, although low-key, approach to exercise stands me in better stead than those who do intense but sporadic activity, it seems.

    It’s all about keeping at it consistently. By the inch, life’s a cinch. And it sounds like the Blue Zoners already know that. :)

    • Z Egloff May 7, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      Hi Karen,

      I like this: By the inch, life’s a cinch. Totally the Blue Zone approach!

      Like with your example of taking things to the trash, it’s amazing how much we can get done when we apply the slow and steady approach. Plus we stay really healthy and happy. Good times! :)


  9. Michelle May 7, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    Planned exercise…my nemesis!!!! I love the impromptu stuff…hauling, helping, mowing, even picking up doggie poo! Thank you for the reminder that movement is movement and aren’t our bodies miraculous!?

    • Z Egloff May 8, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

      Hi Michelle,

      Yes – our bodies rock!! And I agree that impromptu movement is wonderful – it’s like getting tricked into exercise. It can just be, um, life – instead of a “have to.” I’ll pass on the dog poo, though. That’s why we have a cat! 😉


  10. Sauda May 12, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

    I work at The Home Depot in the flooring department and sometimes in garden so I am deep in manual labor all day and then I work out at the gym about twice a week and for me this is an opportunity to move fast and quickly and release stress. It’s less about my body and more about my mind. So I loooove excercise!!! but it used to be about my body and having men look at me and to get attention but now it’s about releasing stress. Also I grew up in Africa so manual labor was so a part of my daily life. It’s nice to be able to flush the toilet and wash clothes in the washer instead of beating them on a rock or using a washboard. Whew! I’ve come a ways.

    • Z Egloff May 15, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

      Hi Sauda!

      I love this – the shift in focus and having exercise being about stress relief. I love to take long hikes and I can definitely relate to that – just feeling my body out in nature and breathing the air and moving is soooooo great for getting me grounded and putting everything in perspective.

      When I was in my 20’s, I didn’t have a washer and dryer, and I didn’t have a car to get to the laundromat. So I washed everything by hand. To this day, I SO appreciate my washer and dryer. Talk about contrast (as Abe would say)! It’s nice to move to a better-feeling place!


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